Second Helpings

Wood Tavern Pork Belly

It was a balmy evening in an East Contra Costa winery garden. Tables set out on the lawn and conversation flowing liberally like the wine. A fund-raiser for Slow Food, so everything was fresh, local, organic — delicious.
The specialty third course of the meal was pork belly, and I remember being struck — this was about four years ago — by how many people sent back their plates with the food pretty much intact. Consequently, I wasn’t surprised about 18 months ago to hear Alex Ong, chef-owner of San Francisco’s Betelenut restaurant, comment: “Pork belly to me is heaven, but if I put it on the menu, I can’t give it away.”
He was on a panel discussing the merits of authentic Chinese cuisine and the pedestrian palates of many American diners not willing to be adventurous with it.
Have times changed or does Oakland have especially sophisticated diners?
I wondered this when tucking into the crispy pork belly that comes as a starter at Wood Tavern. It’s consistently on the menu, but how it comes changes with the seasons. I’ve had it with lentils, and during this past summer, it was served with diced potatoes, frisée and a poached egg ($12). I was indulging myself just a couple of weeks after my date, who often goes for things he knows well, ordered wine-braised pork belly at Marzano and loved it.
It seems pork belly is coming into its own on regular menus with regular folks.
Curious, and because a foodie friend wanted to try making it at home after her Wood Tavern experience, I asked sous chef Mark Eisenberg to tell me how Wood Tavern gets its so melt-in-the-mouth tender on the inside (a trait of good pork belly) and crispy on the outside.
Turns out the chef starts by brining it for 24 hours in, among other things, salt, sugar, coriander, cumin, garlic, fennel, star anise and arbol chiles. “Then we confit it in duck fat,” says Eisenberg, which means they melt duck fat into a pan, add the belly, cover it with foil and then put it in an oven for four hours at 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once cooked, the pork belly is removed from the fat, cooled and cut (into the portions you see on your plate). When someone places an order, the chef crisps it in the fryer (with peanut oil). I wonder if those people at the fund-raiser have any idea what they missed.

Wood Tavern, 6317 College Ave., (510) 654-6607, Open 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Mon.–Thu., 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and 5 p.m.–9 p.m. Sun.

This article appears in the September-October 2009 issue of Alameda Magazine
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